by Geoffrey R. Stone. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007. 224pp. Paper. $14.95. ISBN: 9780393330045.

Reviewed by Torin Monahan, School of Justice and Social Inquiry, Arizona State University. Email: torin.monahan [at] asu.edu.


“The line between reason and repression can be elusive and is often ignored” (p.xvii)

Geoffrey R. Stone’s book sets out to explore how the United States has negotiated the line between reason and repression, especially during times of war. Time and again the US has turned to repression and violated the civil liberties and constitutional rights of individuals. Nonetheless, Stone illustrates important differences among decisions during wartime crises and argues that the country has learned from some previous episodes and has the potential to learn a great deal more. In an accessible and engaging style, Stone reviews seven major instances of wartime restrictions upon liberties, from the implementation of the Sedition Act of 1798 and other related legislation in the “Half War with France,” to today’s surveillance, extraordinary rendition, and indefinite detention programs that mark the “war on terror.” The other events covered include Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War, Wilson’s backing of espionage and sedition acts during World War I, Roosevelt’s role in establishing internment camps for Japanese citizens during World War II, McCarthy’s rampage against accused communists during the Cold War, and multiple presidents’ complicity in the spying, infiltration, and disruption of protest groups and others during the Vietnam War. Rather than being a detailed history, full of stories, complexities, and dates, this is a relatively simple but important book geared perfectly toward undergraduate and popular audiences. In essence, it is the stripped down, barebones version of Stone’s earlier work PERILOUS TIMES (2004).

Restrictions upon liberties during times of war fall into somewhat predictable patterns, which can make our national predilection for repeating them all the more troubling. One important trend covered by Stone is how internal politics and concerns for elections often play a major role in guiding the behavior of elected officials. In discussing John Adams’ push to pass the Sedition Act of 1798, Stone relates: “The act had been adopted as a war measure to strengthen the nation in its impending war with France, but had served as a political weapon to strengthen the Federalists in their partisan war with the Republicans” (p.16). Thus, individuals critical of the president or of the war efforts – including a congressman and vocal journalists – were jailed, ostensibly to protect the country from the contagion of treasonous talk, but perhaps primarily to safeguard the dominance of the Federalist party. In another example, during WWII, President Roosevelt intentionally delayed the release of [*782] Japanese Americans and others wrongly interned until after the presidential election of 1944 because he was concerned about losing voter support on the West Coast (p.79). Then again, during McCarthy’s rise to power during the Cold War, Republican politicians who might otherwise not have been supportive of McCarthy’s tactics chose to embrace them in their efforts to regain the White House (p.93). Political opportunism is an especially distasteful dimension to violations of civil liberties during times of war because it tends to feed xenophobia and intolerance for the sake of personal gain.

Another historical trend is the coupling of patriotism with paternalism. For example, public support for the involvement of the US in WWI was intentionally crafted through techniques that we might now refer to as being downright Orwellian. Stone writes:

To build a sense of patriotic fervor, Wilson established the Committee on Public Information (CPI), under the direction of George Creel, a journalist and public relations expert. Creel’s task was to generate enthusiasm for the war. Under his direction, the CPI produced a flood of pamphlets, news releases, speeches, newspaper editorials, political cartoons, and even motion pictures. His efforts concentrated on two main themes: feeding hatred of the enemy and promoting suspicion of anyone who might be “disloyal” . . . In the first month of the war, Attorney General Gregory urged “loyal” Americans to act as voluntary detectives and to report their suspicions directly to the Department of Justice. The results were staggering. (pp.49-50)

In this and other cases, once the flames of patriotism have been fanned into almost uncontrollable conflagrations, state leaders step in to handle the crises claiming that they know what is best for the country, while asserting that what is best must require extreme actions and executive privilege. Typically, this includes questioning the loyalty of “aliens” within the country and of anyone else who voices opposition to wartime policies. One of the key strengths of this book is that Stone is able to criticize each of these instances in their specific historical contexts, while simultaneously holding them up for comparison against the current “war on terror.”

Eventually, almost all wartime restrictions upon liberties are found to be unconstitutional and repealed. Then leaders embark upon elaborate, but ultimately insufficient, rituals of public remorse. Reparations are made, medals given, pardons granted, public apologies voiced, cases overturned, and so on. The lesson to be learned here, as Stone would put it, is that especially during times of war, citizens can neither trust the judgment nor the ability of the individuals and institutions charged with protecting liberties. Both Congress and the Supreme Court have repeatedly capitulated to the desires of the president in times of crisis, upholding censorship laws and the legality of Japanese internment, for instance. Stone asserts that public vigilance is needed to protect – and insist upon leaders protecting – civil liberties no matter what the situation. The supposed risk of compromising security through such protections is simply not supported by [*783] history, but violations of liberties, on the other hand, are manifest. He explains: “Although Congress and the president have often underprotected civil liberties in wartime, there is not a single instance in which the Supreme Court has overprotected those liberties in a way that caused any demonstrable harm to the national security” (p.180).

The book’s final caution concerns our current “war on terror.” In some ways the policies and practices surrounding this war are less outwardly restrictive than those of previous wars. Muslim Americans are not being interned en masse, for instance, and notable war critics, such as Howard Dean, are not being locked up for their verbal attacks on the president. Stone tells readers that this is a positive sign that the nation is learning from history. In other ways, however, current restrictions on liberties must be considered as qualitatively different from those of the past. In previous cases, wars were seen as finite and violations temporary, whereas the “war on terror” is discursively framed as indefinite in duration. The levels of secrecy concerning spying, detainment, and torture are also unprecedented, making public critique and executive accountability all the more difficult. In Stone’s estimation, the secret detention of so-called enemy combatants is one of the most reckless assertions of executive authority in American history . . . With the wave of his hand, Bush made an American citizen [José Padilla] disappear. This is the closest we have ever come to what might fairly be described as a ‘Gestapo-like tactic’. . . To this day, we have no way of knowing how many other American citizens, if any, remain in secret custody. (p.135).

Such changes in tactics, along with the consolidation of the mainstream media (which Stone does not discuss), present serious challenges to the preservation of civil liberties and an active civil society. This book offers one effective means of encouraging discussion of these issues, especially in classroom environments, and fostering productive critique of current practices in light of similar (and dissimilar) ones in the past.



© Copyright 2007 by the author, Torin Monahan.